John Vanderslice: Interview
Vanderslice Summit at Camp Upstate New York
I've received more than one e-mail asking if I'm related to the great John Vanderslice, and here's my answer: I'll never tell. Don't ask him either, because you won't get anywhere. You thought The White Stripes' ambiguous relationship was frustrating? Get used to it. In the immortal words of The Go-Gos, our lips are sealed. Unless, of course, we're on the topic of recording, fame, John Darnielle, Shostakovich, or... oh yeah, that new album he's got coming out, entitled Emerald City. I had the good fortune to talk with the greater of the two Slices last week via (tiny) telephone from San Francisco, and for once, I got the time zone right.
(ring, ring, ring (bananaphone))
Hi! You're psychic.
I knew you'd be right on time.
This is pretty punctual for me...
It's pretty impressive. How are you today?
I'm good! A little freaked out actually... the room I'm in is actually the production studio of my alma mater's radio station... usually filled with foam but they tore it all off because they're redoing it and it seems like... a weird corpse of a recording studio.
It's unbelievable how many corpses of recording studios I've been in, in San Francisco... they're closing about one in every three months. We go in and we buy stuff they don't want or take stuff they don't want... one of the biggest studios just closed down this week. Pretty amazing how fast stuff is changing.
What are people using more than traditional [recording studios]?
I would say everyone's recording at home. Everyone. And maybe people are doing drums in the studio but maybe not. There are a lot of people I know who record drums in their house or in their basement or in their apartment... pretty amazing, actually. I own a studio, so obviously, I have mixed feelings about it, but I think mostly it's really good for people to not go into a studio, actually. I think if people can make it work at home they should work at home. Some people really thrive in a studio and some people don't.
The transition from the studio back to home can be really inspiring too because there's a lot of freedom doing that, because then all of a sudden there's no constraints, there's no one watching.
I guess it's that thing about bringing your work home.
And some people can't function. It's too unstructured, for me personally. I have a four track here and I don't like to use it because I can never relax when I'm home because I think I'm supposed to be working. If I book time in the studio I know I have to be prepared and it delineates the work. Other people are multifunctional, but I would rather not mix the two.
The people who do come to Tiny Telephone who want to record... do you ask them why they come there rather than doing it at home?
Well, no. I don't ask them directly but in general, I would know already, from what I gather... today, Mark from Her Space Holiday is in the studio. He's been in there on and off this month, and he's been doing a new project called XO Panda that's very, very good.
That's awesome, that's good to hear.
Yeah, and that's super cool. So he's in there because he's working with [Tiny Telephone engineer] Tim Mooney, who's really good. And there's a lot of instruments in there -- he can do drums... there's tons of keyboards and amps... there's a lot of tools in there. I don't think he's been in a studio. I don't think any of those Her Space Holiday records were in a studio.
They don't sound like it because they're mostly just really poppy, sort of clean instruments...
Yeah, and it's interesting to see because it's new territory for him and it's really been inspiring for him -- he's actually been adding days and getting into it. I saw the same thing happen for John Darnielle and Peter of the Mountain Goats... you know, John had recorded a lot of stuff at home, and the transition out of home and into the studio can be really inspiring... and you know, the transition from the studio back to home can be really inspiring too because there's a lot of freedom doing that, because then all of a sudden there's no constraints, there's no one watching.
The thing that sometimes scares me... for example, the Mountain Goats were once so low-fi... I remember when We Shall All Be Healed was coming out everyone was saying "Oh, this is his studio album", and I thought, "Oh no, does this mean there's going to be all this annoying extra stuff?" I always get worried that's going to happen to everyone.
Of course, and for good reason. What I decided a long time ago is that it's a problem of resolution more than anything. It wasn't that the studio was necessarily making people make slicker music, it's just that maybe their music was slicker than you thought. It's just that the resolution was a little lower. It would shine a clear light on what they were doing. There's many ways to generate distortion and lower resolution-distressed recordings, and that's what the ear wants. Even subtle levels of distortion are very necessary in a lot of rock music. Without it, it becomes antiseptic. When you're recording at home on shitty 4-tracks or crappy computers, there's a certain roughness that is just naturally generated by that. It's noisier. Maybe the people doing it don't know as much as an engineer, which sometimes can be better... leads to a more automatic, more reckless process.
That must be why people are so picky about who will help them produce their album. When I heard We Shall All Be Healed I loved it and I felt silly, and then that was sort of how I found out about you. I had a couple good friends who were obsessed with the Mountain Goats who said "Oh, but then the producer of this album is really cool, you should listen to him! He has your name, kind of." So then we went to see you when Cellar Door came out, actually.
Do you remember where that show was?
The Knitting Factory in New York.
Oh, that's great!
Sufjan [Stevens) was there too... it was so funny because I remember he was so shy!
Yeah, wasn't that the coup of the century? We had Sufjan supporting us for five shows. My booking agent, Adam, who is one of my best friends -- we were laughing about all of these great people who we had gotten to support us -- and that they had all gone and blown up and become huge! And I just thought that was the coolest tour with Sufjan.
You had the Centro-Matic guy too...
Oh yeah, we had Will [Johnson] too. Yeah, that was a really cool show!
I remember Sufjan really did just blow up after that, because I saw him in a dorm common room at Bard College that year, it was tiny... but I think I heard one of his songs playing in the grocery store the other day!
And he's playing at the Kennedy Center, you know... he's a legitimate cultural force.
Well, I'm happy that someone like him got to be it.
Absolutely, and playing with him... we knew the first show we played with him in Philadelphia... I knew that when the promoter came up to us and said "Wow, the presales on this show are through the roof," we said, "Okay, that's not us!" We've had so many people play with us that we can tell whether people have heat or not when they're with us, when they're on our bill. It's very exciting, extremely cool. Last tour we did, we had St. Vincent on the whole tour and we could just tell there was juice behind her.
She was amazing. I loved her.
She's incredible! She's totally amazing. [Adam and I] were talking about the Sufjan thing, and the other bands we had played with in relation to Annie and St. Vincent... we both know that she is going to do very, very well in the next couple of years.
I loved it... a girl with an electric guitar!
Yeah, she's a total badass. I would buy stock in Annie Clark.
It's so cool because it seems the way you approach tours and albums in general is more laid-back. It seems like it's more your style to just make your music and run your studio and not really become the Pitchfork darling.
In some levels we are pretty relaxed about stuff and pretty mellow, but there are moments where you have tremendous anxiety and anguish about the whole process. There are many times when I feel an enormous amount of pressure and I'm not even sure why, because that's not really how I run things. We do run things, Adam and me and the band, in a very long-term way. We're not really concerned with the next six months to the next year. I mean, I want to be making records for a long time. This is what I do. I'm a long-term careerist. I've seen a lot of bands in the studio that are in an absolute hurry, and you can tell that they've put pressure on themselves to make something happen in the next year or they're gonna really re-examine what they're doing... and that's really, really hard! There's a lot of really, really good records coming out all the time, and even when a band can have a good impact on one record, and it's unbelievable, you might feel sorry for that band in two years. That's how vicious/exciting this time is! It's incredibly competitive and I think that's great. I think it's really allowed so many good records to come out so quickly. There's just stuff that's bubbling up like, oh god, Paranthetical Girls! There's so much that's just incredibly interesting coming out.
In many ways, the way that Adam and I -- my agent, booking manager and my first client before he was even sure he wanted to do this, like 5 years ago -- we have a very long-term view of stuff. In some ways it's very, very mellow... you know, I'm thinking about this schedule on the next record and when I can start really getting people in the studio and recording it. To me, that's what matters. The tour is great and it helps me employ my band and everyone else, but for me, I'm not necessarily freaking out about press coverage on the next record.
But the thing is that as we go further down this road, everything is gonna mean less, but there's gonna be more that means something.
Giving yourself more of your own timetable.
Yeah, and when you're looking at it in a more long-term way, those little small things don't necessarily get you as freaked out.
For example, a band that I can see that has definitely all of a sudden come in the forefront... The Hold Steady... they've obviously blown up ridiculously in a very short period of time. They're very public, they like to blog on myspace... one thing that they've had to deal with is that they're getting so big. They used to be able to always return e-mails, and then they were asked to record "Take Me Out To the Ball Game" by the Minnesota Twins...
I'm sure they can't keep up that level of public interaction as time goes on.
It's like with anything in life. Let's say you move to a different city... when you move on, you move on. If you become Death Cab For Cutie, your circumstances change. If you move to St. Louis, it's the same thing on a certain level. You're in a different place completely. I've seen it happen in many different ways for bands as they've gotten bigger. I've seen bands absolutely implode and from a personnel perspective, collapse because of this, and I've also seen bands collapse because in their own perception, things didn't happen quickly enough that separated them from their audience. It's weird, I have a really nuanced view on all that stuff because I've seen it happen from so many sides. I've seen bands that have gotten very big very quickly that wear it really well, and I've seen the opposite where bands have gotten maybe a little bit bigger who don't wear it very well. It's not flattering to see.
Not very pretty to watch.
More and more, I definitely see that. I grew up listening to a lot of classical guys like Gustav Mahler... I'm totally into that world. Shostakovich was huge for me growing up, so for me the idea that like, a band that will be on the cultural radar for 10 or 15 or 20 years isn't taken all that seriously compared to these guys. I don't believe in any of it, and I think that's been a really leveling thing in my own life, you know what I mean? It's not that I don't think it's important to be part of the culture -- obviously I do, it's all I do all day long in my own way -- participating in music culture, and I'm into it, but the idea that you need to get really worked up about it and what you mean in a larger sense of world culture is a total joke to me... compared to what's happened before you and after you. People are so myopic about how important they are. Honestly, there's probably between 100 and 1000 really interesting records coming out a week, and we're talking about Ivory Coast, we're talking about Thailand. I mean, there's a lot of stuff happening in the world that people don't know about, so the idea that their indie rock band is really that important is ridiculous, and I think that's very freeing and an honest way to look at it.
I think also the fact that it's so easy to get a new album now... I have a professor who wrote for Rolling Stone -- she likes to tell us stories about going to college in North Carolina, and about how her friends would roadtrip up to New York, and everyone would be like "Oh, bring me back THIS album, bring me back THIS one..." This is like the late 1970s, and she was saying how it would be such a big deal for them to get a copy of new york rocker magazine and get a new album... and you know, I can just go online and download an album in five minutes. It isn't as much of an event anymore for anyone, which I think is a little bit depressing, and also makes it difficult to stay on top of new music. It's hard for me and I'm always reading about new albums, but it's still hard for me to figure out what is worth listening to.
Of course! But maybe it's a zero-sum game. If you grew up in the vinyl age, maybe your record collection was 25 albums... and that was a sizable collection! And maybe half of them were David Bowie records. In a sense, maybe you have a Cream album and a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album, so in your world those albums have tremendous weight to them. And I think it is zero-sum because now... yeah, maybe it's more difficult, there's more white noise, but also maybe there's 400-500 records on your iPod, and I guarantee that 100 to 200 to 300 of those are really worth talking about!
They probably are!
Or worth thinking about. But the thing is that as we go further down this road, everything is gonna mean less, but there's gonna be more that means something, and I think that's zero-sum, and I think that's also beautiful, because anything that brings you towards a pure democracy is good.
It just sometimes feels like you have to make listening to music a 9-5.
Absolutely! For us, we do, because we're doing this more or less as a job. I mean, I have got to discipline myself to listen. That's the reason we find people like Okkervil River and St. Vincent to go on tour. They're unbelievable. We have a huge batch of bands that we're considering for the fall tour, and I guarantee you it's gonna be someone totally cool.
Of course I have to ask you this... I guess my question is, how Dutch are you?
My dad's side are all Pennsylvania Dutch coal miners... I think what my mom told me was that it was like 17-something, you know, the mid-18th century, so there's really no Dutch really in me, except that when I go to Holland... I think that I might just be deluding myself because I want to be Dutch because I think they're cool, but I think that I look really Dutch! People have told me that at many shows, and they're like "Wow man, you really do look Dutch!"
I know what you mean about Holland because pretty much most of my family is still there.
Oh, that's amazing! Where have you been and where are they from?
My dad was born in Schiedam, near Rotterdam. Most of my family is concentrated around the Rotterdam area and then some of them live in Friesland, a province area that sort of claims to be a different part of Holland.
Wow, that's cool! I'm gonna look that up on a map. I've been to Rotterdam a couple times, which I really dug.
It's a beautiful country... it's kind of claustrophobic, but if you go to Friesland, it's more spread out, more of a countryside -- a lot less people living there -- even though in general it's such a small country. It's gorgeous especially in the summer, if you can get there on a day when it's not raining, which is almost never.
Wow. I'm definitely gonna look it up on a map. i think we're gonna be back there for 5 weeks in November, so we're super jazzed.
There are so many great things about Holland. I get very nationalistic.
It has certain elements of like, what you would think of as paradise... no doubt about it!
Whenever my aunt and uncle come over here, we'll be watching the news, and they'll be like "What are you DOING? What is your country DOING?"
And you're like "Well... we don't know."
I say, "Trust me... I'm not involved." And the one thing they always do is go out to restaurants with us and they order dinner, and then the American portions are just gigantic...
Yeah, yeah. And they think it's just ridiculous!
Yeah and my aunt says, "I'm not gonna eat this! What do I do? Can I split it with you?"
So, about John Darnielle... it's sort of flooring me how much his name keeps popping up in so many interviews with so many people .. and he's doing this thing in upstate New York at Farm Sanctuary. I'm going to it and I'm wondering what he's gonna do... if he's gonna hang out.
I think he's gonna hang out... this is just me talking, I have no idea, but I think because of the vibe of that and because of where it is and the circumstances, I think anyone would be more apt to mingle, because it's a really celebratory communal thing, you know? I think it's gonna be really special. I'm gonna be doing stuff then so I can't go to it, but I would love to go. It's gonna be a really special couple of days. I think it's gonna be absolutely fascinating. I've noticed a change just in the past 4 or 5 months. He's become culturally connected to a lot of different things. His profile, which has never been really small, has gotten bigger, and I have an outsider perspective. Obviously I know those guys very well, but I live far away. I'm gonna be working with those guys on the new record and Scott Solter... we all know it... we feel that this record is going to have a lot of people pay attention to it right away, so we're really excited.
It makes me happy that it seems to be sort of a trend that people who can write really good stories within their lyrics are being noticed.
Yeah, and it is happening all the time. I think in general there are a lot of good people writing lyrics right now and they're getting attention because of it, you know? When Rubies came out, the Destroyer album... that's an incredible album, and he's not an easy guy to figure out lyrically. You definitely have to dig in and be very patient with him. You have to follow his logic. That guy is mind-blowingly good, but there's this metaphysical absurdity in his writing. Nobody knows what he does, but that so many people got into it... I thought it was really amazing.
I remember that album getting a lot of attention.
Yeah, and it sold very well. It's a really unique, particular thing for that to cross over. I mean, for anybody right now to get this groundswell attention is huge because the pie is just getting divided up every day... smaller pieces are gonna be portioned out because there's too many good records coming out, so for anyone to get any kind of attention is meaningful right now.
The people who are making really interesting albums will have this thing where they almost don't have to make a decision or have aesthetic criteria about what they like or don't like about music. They don't need to put it in a box.
Somebody like Dan Bejar or John Darnielle or even Craig Finn... they all have very distinctive voices, and I think that at one point that would have been bad... and for some people it still is bad. There are some people I know who just can't listen to the Hold Steady because they're like "He sounds like he's barking, I can't do it!" Or you know, some people say "I can't listen to John Darnielle because his voice is so piercing," but now it seems like that's actually becoming a good thing because so much of the corporate rock 'n' roll that's coming out sounds exactly the same... and there's this guy kind of popping out, lyrically.
There's two things that happen. One thing is that these singers have changed in time. They have developed and their styles have really changed... the vocals on Get Lonely are very, very different from the vocals on Sweden or Coroner's Gambit.
He sounds smoother.
Yeah! And he's really developed this beautiful head voice. The other thing is, the lyrics with these guys are so interesting, all of them... with Finn, and Bejar... that sometimes you're like, "I'm not necessarily here because this guy is crooning like David Bowie, but because these stories are riveting." That I think is really interesting, when the lyrics can override those considerations.
Exactly. Even the Hold Steady's first record, Almost Killed Me is to some people unlistenable compared to their latest album... and even Lifter Puller .. I don't know if you've listened to them...
Oh yeah! absolutely. Lifter Puller's fantastic.
Some of those songs musically are sort of like, math-rock and atonal, plus this guy barking... but if you listen to them and you listen to the story that he's telling, all of a sudden it becomes listenable.
I think it's cool that people seem to be taking the time... like, "Okay, this might not be the most sonically pleasing thing I've ever heard..."
And that becomes the strength of it later on. There are so many albums... their weaknesses when I first put them on became what was very interesting to me later, and that's when I stopped having these hard and fast aesthetic rules about music. It's very hard to nail me down with what I thought of a record. I really almost don't believe in having opinions anymore. I think it's like an ego thing... that you feel that you're able to limit the power of an album by saying "Oh, that's good," or "That's not interesting to me." It's almost like a divide and conquer thing. It's a very male thing... "Oh, I know what this is, I can tell you in five words what this means."
This is an interesting thing that I've noticed too... the people who are making really interesting albums will have this thing where they almost don't have to make a decision or have aesthetic criteria about what they like or don't like about music. You almost find that their ego is not connected to that. I have seen this many times... you'll ask someone about a record and they won't feel the need to use these conditional adjectives. They don't need to put it in a box.
It's not like "This band crossed with this band and a little of this band"...
Yeah, and when I was younger and very unsure about what I was doing, I had very extreme opinions about an album after I heard it twice, and I don't really have the need to do that anymore. I laugh sometimes when I hear my friends talk about records and they have these really extreme opinions about the music. I know that they haven't really lived with the record. Sometimes, in some ways you're threatened by something... and sometimes there's so much music coming out that people want to make a decision very quickly.
So they can move on to the next thing.
Yeah! Exactly... and I understand that, you can't have 100 albums in the pending file for what you think about them.
I get stuck sometimes. I get like, "I really need to form an opinion about this album today!"
You know, at some point though, you may become very at peace with not having opinions at alI... I think that's very freeing... or the opinions you have are based entirely in the moment that you're living in. Many albums don't make sense unless you're in a particular circumstance, not only emotionally but for instance: listening to Lil' Wayne in the car when you're driving 50mph on a 30mph road is very different than listening to Lil' Wayne in Chatham County with your mom. It's a totally different experience and vice versa... there are some albums that work when you're driving with your mom cross country and then there's a shared kind of emotional register with the album. They're situational. And also, in certain periods in your life, you want anger and blackness and just complete shutdown darkness, and other times maybe you're so depleted emotionally that you have to listen to like, The Carpenters. I think you have to admit that these things are situational.
I think that there are points in my life when I have not been able to be as good of friends with one of my friends if we're not listening to kind of the same stuff. I guess that doesn't really happen to anyone who isn't disgustingly crazy about music, but I mean... I dunno, it's kinda scary...
It made me happy to know that you're into movies and you would rather watch a movie than listen to a new album because there are times when I'm thinking, "I really don't want to write about this, I really just want to sit down and watch a movie."
It's your job. And whenever it's your job, some of the shine is taken off right away. It's just too tied in to responsibility to be pleasurable. For me, movies are like a cultural intellectual thing that does not remind me that I should be at work, or that I should be trying harder. For me, movies are the most freeing things in the world... like, last night on cable they were playing Robert Altman's Three Women, and I don't know if you've ever seen that...
No, but I've heard that it's wonderful.
Definitely check it out.
So I read the Cliff's Notes on Emerald City, and I just want to say that I've seen the getting-a-visa process secondhand that... my boss' husband is German and they essentially had to prove their love in front of a government official.
It's very intense, very invasive. Makes you hate your government ...
I can definitely see how that would bring forth a flood of emotions that would result in an album. I'm looking forward to it. It's all finished?
It's done. We approved artwork this week. I'm gonna go to Tape Op Convention this summer and do some cool things that I've put off for a while, and then I'm gonna get ready to tour and kind of push the album. I think we're gonna be recording a little bit this summer too.
That's cool... for your next project?
Yeah, because once you start touring...
You can't do anything.
It's hard to get back in the studio again. Touring takes you out of that introverted place that you have to be to write songs, so we just try to do it before.
Thanks so much for talking with me!
Thank you for doing this! This was sort of a dream come true for both of us.
Ha! Well, definitely more for me, I would think.